This week we are discussing this question: How much time should be spend
Because of the time element, it is quite an interesting question, but is
this the way to approach altruism?
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How much time should we spend on altruism?
I think this questions needs further clarification. "We spend on
altruism" can be re-interpreted to mean "spend being altruists." We also
need to clarify what we mean by altruism. And then there is the feature,
"time"; what should we make of this factor?
My philosophical instinct is to think that any issues about the meaning
of altruism are not necessarily due to the complexity of the concept,
but the fact that so many people and disciplines have used and abused
the concept of altruism beyond recognition.
It is clear that most meanings of altruism focus on the "selfless
concern for the welfare of others."* Most religions promote altruism by,
proposing some form of the Golden Rule (categorical imperative) or
disinterested love. As the Wikipedia article points outs, some religions
advocate altruism as a moral value (Christianity, Buddhism) or as moral
behaviour (Islam, Judaism). In modern times, altruism has attracted the
attention of evolutionary biologist and psychologists. Thus for a
biologist, "altruism of an individual would be a behaviour that increase
the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the
actor." Fitness here means the ability to pass on one's genes.
Irrespective of our point of view we all recognise that there is a
dilemma or a paradox with altruism: why should we help others at our
expense? And it is this idea of "at our expense" that seems to make
altruism so special. Therefore, is altruism a class of special acts or
kinds of acts? Is it the type of act that makes an act altruistic and
the actor an altruist? Or it is some other criteria?
Of course, we do recognise that some acts are special and of a kind that
they do, by definition, attract the label or tag of altruism. Donating
an organ, adopting a needy child, helping the infirm. But the act does
not seem to be enough for some. The act might be laudable, but we are
also told to look at the motivation and intention. Is as altruistic act
the result of selflessness or does the actor expects some kind of reward
or return in the future. This consideration has attracted the attention
of many scholars and not surprisingly it has been given various names
and labels: reciprocity, mutualism, tit-for-tat strategy and so on.
An other problem that concerns altruism is that altruistic acts might be
exploited by cheats or selfish people. Altruism is even more open to
abuse in a group where altruistic acts are "pooled" together and then
shared around. Paying taxes is a common example to illustrate the point.
Those who cheat on their taxes are doing it at the expense of those who
do pay their taxes. A more striking example of this problem is the
criminal judicial systems. Judicial systems, at least in principle, go
to great lengths to clear innocent people and punish the guilty.
However, the high standards that a judicial system requires to prove
guilt means that some people are not convicted even when in fact they
did commit the crime.
The received position, and as the question seems also seems to assume,
is that altruistic acts are desirable and that for these acts to qualify
as altruistic acts they have to have an element of intention. Thus when
the question asks, how much time should we spend..? it assumes two
things. The first is that it is within our will to perform altruistic
acts and secondly it is within our powers to perform altruistic acts and
non altruistic acts.
I do not believe that acts, per se, can be classified in advance as
being altruistic or non-altruistic. There are many problems in
attempting to do this. Even if we knew what an altruistic act is in
advance, we still cannot guarantee that we can bring about the desired
effects. Nor can we assume that everyone knows which are altruistic and
non altruistic acts. There isn't a table we can consult. Moreover, not
everyone is able to perform the same act, in the same way that not
everyone can run a race. But most important of all, by having a
predefined list of acts is contrary to the belief that altruistic acts
must have an intentional selfless act. How can we tell what is an
intentional selfless act in advance? But even when intention is
considered, it is of arbitrary value: what matters is the benefit we
convey to the person we help.
However, altruistic acts are usually associated with acts that are
uncommon or unusual. Unusual either in the sense of the benefit bestowed
on the recipient or unusual in the nature of the act. Thus an organ
donor would qualify on both counts, but not necessarily someone donating
ten Euros to a cause.
But just because altruistic acts are of a special kind, I don't think
that they are also conceptually different from acts that involve others.
For example, helping others, sharing tasks with others, teaching, and so
on. These are some of the things we do with others or for others.
This is important because here we have the foundations of an answer for
the next question: how did we become altruists in the first place, or at
least some people have? I prefer to start with the study referred in the
Wikipedia article by Samuel Bowles. Bowles studied tribes in Africa and
found that "hunter-gatherer bands of up to 30 individuals" were more
closely related. The size of the these modern hunter gatherers are
assumed to be the same as prehistoric groups. These conditions made it
much easier to be altruistic towards other group members thus improving
the fitness of the group. This study is regarded as evidence of altruism
benefitting the model of group selection. Helping the individual would
also be helping the group and vice versa. Incidentally, the average
attendance count for our meetings is between 25 and 35. I wonder if
there are any Sabre tooth tigers lurking in the grass!
The value of this study is not so much that it gives credence to the
group benefit theory of altruism, but that this closed group makes it
more probably for the altruistic gene to get a strong hold in the human
biological system. Moreover, with such a small group and such dangerous
conditions, there would be more opportunities to invoke the altruistic
gene. But this still leaves the unanswered question, how do we account
for altruistic acts towards those who are not kin? Some of the quick and
ready answers are these:
1) Common ancestry. Two people today might not be next of kin or kin,
but back in time they stand a good chance of having a common ancestor.
And if we go back enough we will all find a common ancestor. So it
should not come as a surprise that the kin theory is super efficient and
applied beyond immediate relatives.
2) The altruistic gene might have been so successful that it has spread
to a large part of the population, in the same way that blood group O
(O-) (see Wikipedia or National Blood Service for England & North
Wales**) can be donated to others. The National Blood Service, in fact
say that the blood type O is the oldest group going back to the stone
age and that other groups are derived from this ancient group. Is it too
far fetched to think that the altruistic gene might have evolved in a
3) We might mimic those who are altruistic because it might be more
advantageous to so. If we can do this, it surely means that the
altruistic gene is more successful than the Group O gene because we can
mimic altruism but we cannot mimic group O blood.
But the kin theory or the group theory or the ancestor theory still
might not answer the biologist's concern of why should someone help
someone else be better off. Don't forget that being better off here
means better off at passing one's genes to the next generation. Once
again there might be a number of possible answers:
1) The altruist might have already successfully passed on their genes.
2) The risk is worth taking. For example, the risk of giving childbirth
is worth taking for a first time mother to be. (at least Biologically
3) We have some control of the situation and therefore can bring about
the desired outcome.
4) We already have a fully functioning innate altruistic gene which
makes behaving or being altruistic much easier, although, of course, the
gene does not determine the behaviour.
The problem for the biologist is that a biologist can test and falsify
the hypothesis that there is an altruistic gene and we can inherit it,
but they cannot falsify a hypothesis that says a bunch of people, a few
thousand years ago, acted altruistically because they thought it was
worth the risk. Which is of course quite a reasonable issue for the
biologist but as Gödel pointed out, no formal system can prove all the
reasonable theories it postulates. Admittedly, Gödel was thinking of
mathematics and not everyone thinks that incompleteness theory applies
to everything. (See Gödel's first incompleteness theorem).
The next big issue is whether an altruist ought to benefit from their
acts. This problems has taxed the minds of philosophers and theologian,
plus everyone else for a long time. My approach would be, not that the
altruist should not benefit from his or her act but to ask, why
shouldn't they? As long as there is a net gain for the beneficiary, why not?
Maybe it is because altruists do get something for their efforts, that:
a) makes altruism more widespread, b) makes more people act altruistic,
c) we are better off as a society. For me the real problem is not
whether altruists get something for their actions, but whether cheats
get something at the expense of others.
Why should we concern ourselves with cheats and not with whether
altruistic acts must not benefit the actor? As has been done so far.
Apart from common sense and getting our thinking in order, the answer is
quite simple. If we look at altruism as a form of a game in game theory,
as some do, altruism would be a case where someone gains and another may
or may not lose. However, the more efficient game is the win-win
strategy. If everyone wins then by definition not only is the sum total
of benefit increases but is even more efficient; for example because the
costs are covered by more benefit. Saving a life costs the same whether
the altruist gets a benefit or not, but if the altruist was compensated
then the cost to benefit ratio would be more efficient.
In reality altruists do get compensated. Doctors who dedicate their
lives investigating cures for diseases are more likely to be respected
by their peers and society than if they just did their job from nine to
five. Some of these investigators go on to be awarded Nobel prizes or
other recognitions within their community. Patients who consent to
medical trials might even help their kin in the future, especially when
inherited diseases are involved.
So the idea that altruists should not benefit for their acts is just not
supported by the evidence. Of course, this does not mean that altruists
will always be compensated nor that this compensation can be quantified
immediately, if at all. What I am postulating is that altruism is not
incompatible with the altruist accruing a benefit.
However, whether an altruist accrues a benefit or not does not really
depend on any moral system, but probably more on whether the altruist
lives in a society populated by other altruists or cheats. Thus, an
altruist who does something to benefit someone else is more likely to
benefit themselves if they live in a society of altruists. And benefit
whether they like it or not. Which brings me back to the real issue of
altruism, the cheats.
The reason why we should concern ourselves with cheats is the following.
Altruists do not create positive effects to others by increasing
disadvantages (although I prefer to use negative effects) to themselves.
It is true that some altruists sometimes get killed or suffer greatly,
but this does not always happen and some altruistic acts are not in
themselves very risky. As I said before, altruism is at least a game
when one party wins and an other party may or may not lose. And when
altruists benefits the positive effects increase. However, cheats
actually create negative effects.
First of all cheats take something for nothing or at the very least not
deserved. But when a cheats benefits (in certain situations) they do it
at the expense of others who might need that benefit more than the
cheat. For example, cheating on social security means that others have
to pay more taxes. But more than that, cheats actually create negative
effects by teaching (or being an example) for others to cheat, displace
altruists in a society, and so on.
Acting altruistically might bring about the death of the altruist so how
can the altruist benefit is such situations? Of course, kin theory
already partially answers this, we derive a benefit by saving our kin.
But kin need not be an immediate relative; we can invoke the common
ancestor theory which answers another part of the problem. Maybe it is
extreme but I think very plausible.
Another reason why we ask the question of "how can someone who dies in
an act of altruism can also benefit?", is maybe because we are limiting
ourselves as to the meaning of positive effect or benefit. In other
words, a benefit might not necessarily be in kind (longer life),
economic (money) or psychological (feeling proud). The reward might be
what Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), and many others, call a meme. A meme is
a piece of "cultural information" that evolves in the same way as genes
evolve, they go through a natural selection process. Thus a meme, such
as a religious belief, can survive and if it is a strong meme it will
survive for a long time, in the same way that strong genes survive.
Don't forget that both a gene and a meme are physical pieces of
information: one resides in our sells the other in our brain.
Thus, some altruists might be rewarded by tuning their life, character,
act into a meme and therefore survive in our culture: that is in the
brains of those who know about the altruist. Not only do we now
understand how important information is, but we also know that this is
what actually happens. Mother Theresa may or may not be with god in
heaven, and we many or may not know whether there is a god or heaven,
but we know for a fact that she is in the minds of many millions of
people on this Earth. People who probably are themselves doing good
things because they have heard of Mother Theresa or beneficiaries of
someone behaving altruistically because they know about Mother Theresa.
Another example, is Marie Curie, who certainly died from radiation
poising, but here discovers in radioactive isotopes and early x-ray
machines have greatly benefited human kind. Sure, she was rewarded with
foreign peer recognition and even won the Nobel Prize twice, but maybe
it is her meme that lives on with even greater recognition. Not only
many people know about Marie Curie, but the European Union has named an
important scientific fellowship*** for young scientists after her: The
Marie Curie Actions. A question we can ask ourselves in passing is
whether the influence of altruistic acts can propagate themselves ad
infinitum (or until the end of the species)?
Our original question asks, how much time should we spend being
altruist? Probably this is the wrong question to ask. Altruistic acts
are opportunistic acts, not planned acts. We now have the opportunity to
save a drowning child. We now have the opportunity to carry a organ
donor's card. We now have the opportunity to help a friend.
Thus, how much time should we spend on altruism, ought to be changed to
how many opportunities should we try and find to be altruists? Maybe in
our search to perform altruistic acts we might care to consider some
useful criteria. I propose the following more as guidelines rather than
1) What can we positively influence positively with our abilities? For
example, there is no point trying to save someone drowning if we cannot
swim, but maybe call the relevant authorities might be more useful.
2) Who can we possibly help so that they receive the maximum assistance
they need? If someone who lives alone needs someone to go with them to
the hospital maybe this is something we can do.
3) Will our altruistic act increase the benefit to society or humanity?
Are we being efficient altruist by contributing a hundred Euros to an
aid relief charity or are we better off actively canvassing against
corrupt dictators in some counties?
Let us take a simple example to test this criteria: carrying an organ
donor card. Would contributing an organ be influencing a positive effect
with our abilities. Yes, we have full authority to what happens to our
organs after we die. Are we offering maximum help to those who need it?
If our organs are suitable then surely yes. Are we increasing the
benefit to society? Yes, we are an example to others and therefore
teaching and influencing others to carry donor cards. And as for
compensation, at the very least we are not worse off or better off, we
are dead. But maybe one of our kin or friends might one day benefit from
someone carrying a donor's card. Isn't that a risk worth taking?
Maybe, except for one minor objection. The three criteria sound all well
and good, but strictly speaking we associate altruism with substantial
acts: helping the poor in India; sharing an organ with someone when we
are still alive; helping to diagnose SARS and then help the victims of
SARS, but later die from the disease itself as Dr Carlo Urbani**** did.
But the issue about altruism is not necessarily whether our acts are big
or not. Remember, I rejected the idea that altruistic acts can be
classified, but we should consider whether an altruistic act has the
Dr Urbani was not and will not be the first doctor to contract and die
from the disease his patients had. what his acts have done is to
establish a practical culture in dealing with pandemic infections that
goes beyond political borders and political paranoia.
But nature has already taken care of this little problem (pardon the
pun) of whether small acts matter? The solution is very simple: chaos.
This is nature's way of having small causes have big effects: remember
the butterfly in China and the tornado in America? Chaos works, as you
know, by making small causes have big effects. This, I would suggest,
solves the problem of how big our acts must be. In the case of altruism
I would hypothesise that: big is no always better than small but small
is always better than nothing.
* Altruism. (2008, May 12). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Retrieved 18:21, May 14, 2008, from
* Biological Altruism
First published Tue 3 Jun, 2003
** National Blood Service for England & North Wales
*** The Marie Curie Actions
**** SARS and Carlo Urbani
By Brigg Reilley, M.P.H., Michel Van Herp, M.D., M.P.H., Dan Sermand,
Ph.D.,and Nicoletta Dentico, M.P.H.
n engl j med 348;20
may 15, 2003
from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: How much time
should we spend on altruism?